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Implementing the Biden Administration’s Climate Executive Order – The White House Report on Climate Change and Migration

By Brigitte Hugh

In October, the Biden Administration released several climate security reports in accordance with the Executive Orders on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration. We are publishing a series of blog posts examining each report in depth. Previously we have looked at the Defense Climate Risk Analysis and The DHS Strategic Framework For Addressing Climate Change. 

In October of this year, the Biden Administration released the White House Report on Climate Change and Migration. As a first-of-its kind report by the White House, the document does a thorough job of assessing the linkages between climate change and migration, and making preliminary recommendations for how to begin addressing them. It is a positive step forward in fulfilling the second pillar of our 2019 Climate Security Plan for America: Assess the Risks, though more must be done to get ahead of the issue.

As with conflict, migration is not solely caused by climate change. There are a host of sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and climatic factors that may intersect to induce someone to migrate within or between countries. However, the climate factor is becoming increasingly more worrying. Recent estimates from the World Bank suggest that under a worst-case warming scenario as many as 216 million people could be forced by climate change to move within their regions. And, since analysis informs action, this report paves the way for the United States to undertake the early preparation necessary in order to leverage the positive aspects of migration and decrease the negative.

Early in the report the authors note that the, “US Government needs to focus on the complex interplay between climate change and migration instead of approaching them as separate issues.” However, the remainder of the report underscores the challenges the U.S. Government faces in breaking out of a siloed approach to climate change by treating climate-related migration, planned relocation, and labor migration as separate issues. In reality, both planned relocation and labor migration may in many cases be types of climate migration. Treating these as separate issues may result in an outsized emphasis on the negative impacts, rather than the benefits, of migration as an adaptation measure—a crucial element of climate resilience and security.

For example, planned relocation, or the migration of a whole community from a location which will soon become uninhabitable, is a key adaptation measure against climate change, especially for Small Island Developing Nations like Kiribati. Labor migration is also a time-tested adaptation measure for livelihood stress, whether climate related or not. In fact, remittances—or the money sent home by family members working outside their home country—are a major source of income for many developing nations. In some cases, they can provide the income needed to fund local adaptation efforts.   

The report uses and often emphasizes the phrase “safe, orderly, and humane” migration. However, it is presented primarily as a vision of future migration, without particular attention to concrete steps for achieving it. In fact, the report does not lay out policy recommendations or commitments which could ensure safe, orderly, and humane migration pathways that incorporate an understanding of climate change, and the importance of increasing the liveability of places where out-migration is increasing—both of which would decrease irregular migration. Without global leadership and action—ideally from the United States—climate change will increase levels of unsafe, disorderly, and irregular migration.

Though migration tends to be seen by the international community as a human security issue, the report does do a great job of highlighting the geopolitical implications that could arise. Most notably, it highlights the possibility of China and/or Russia using migration as a leverage point to sow chaos for the US and its allies. Recently, on the Belarus/Poland border, we saw how a state can leverage migration for political retaliation when Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko sought retribution for EU sanctions. Further, the report affirms that climate change and migration will require deep multilateral cooperation, as our Expert Group of the International Military Council on Climate and Security pointed out in the 2021 World Climate and Security Report.

The most concrete of policy recommendations in the 37-page report is to create a standing interagency policy process on climate change and migration, which would be a solid start. Such a process, however, like this first report on climate change and migration, is just a start, and more action must follow. 

Brigitte Hugh is Program Assistant at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks

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